I take as the starting point for this edition of The Book Trail my most recent review, of Edith Holden’s beautiful The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady. As ever, I have used the ‘Readers also enjoyed’ tab on Goodreads to generate this list. Let me know if anything here piques your interest!
1. The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady by Edith Holden
‘Edith Holden’s words, all carefully written by hand, include her favourite poems, personal thoughts and observations on the wildlife she saw surrounding her home in Warwickshire, and on her travels through England and Scotland. The exquisitely beautiful paintings on every page of birds, butterflies, bees and flowers, reflect her deep love of nature; they have been executed with a naturalist’s eye for detail, and the sensitivity of an artist.
For seventy years, this enchanting and unique book has lain undiscovered; it is now being published for the first time in a full-colour facsimile edition that recapture all the freshness, charm and beauty of the original.’
2. Floriography: An Illustrated Guide to the Victorian Language of Flowers by Jessica Roux
‘Floriography is a full-color guide to the historical uses and secret meanings behind an impressive array of flowers and herbs. The book explores the coded significances associated with various blooms, from flowers for a lover to flowers for an enemy.
The language of flowers was historically used as a means of secret communication. It soared in popularity during the 19th century, especially in Victorian England and the U.S., when proper etiquette discouraged open displays of emotion. Mysterious and playful, the language of flowers has roots in everything from the characteristics of the plant to its presence in folklore and history. Researched and illustrated by popular artist Jessica Roux, this book makes a stunning display piece, conversation-starter, or thoughtful gift.’
3. Unearthing the Secret Garden: The Plants and Places That Inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett by Marta McDowell
‘New York Times bestselling author Marta McDowell has revealed the way that plants have stirred some of our most cherished authors, including Beatrix Potter, Emily Dickinson, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. In her latest, she shares a moving account of how gardening deeply inspired Frances Hodgson Burnett, the author of the beloved children’s classic The Secret Garden.
In Unearthing The Secret Garden, best-selling author Marta McDowell delves into the professional and gardening life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Complementing her fascinating account with charming period photographs and illustrations, McDowell paints an unforgettable portrait of a great artist and reminds us why The Secret Garden continues to touch readers after more than a century. This deeply moving and gift-worthy book is a must-read for fans of The Secret Garden and anyone who loves the story behind the story.’
4. Otherlands: A Journey Through Earth’s Extinct Worlds by Thomas Halliday
‘The past is past, but it does leave clues, and Thomas Halliday has used cutting-edge science to decipher them more completely than ever before. In Otherlands, Halliday makes sixteen fossil sites burst to life on the page.
This book is an exploration of the Earth as it used to exist, the changes that have occurred during its history, and the ways that life has found to adapt―or not. It takes us from the savannahs of Pliocene Kenya to watch a python chase a group of australopithecines into an acacia tree; to a cliff overlooking the salt pans of the empty basin of what will be the Mediterranean Sea just as water from the Miocene Atlantic Ocean spills in; into the tropical forests of Eocene Antarctica; and under the shallow pools of Ediacaran Australia, where we glimpse the first microbial life.
Otherlands also offers us a vast perspective on the current state of the planet. The thought that something as vast as the Great Barrier Reef, for example, with all its vibrant diversity, might one day soon be gone sounds improbable. But the fossil record shows us that this sort of wholesale change is not only possible but has repeatedly happened throughout Earth history.
Even as he operates on this broad canvas, Halliday brings us up close to the intricate relationships that defined these lost worlds. In novelistic prose that belies the breadth of his research, he illustrates how ecosystems are formed; how species die out and are replaced; and how species migrate, adapt, and collaborate. It is a breathtaking achievement: a surprisingly emotional narrative about the persistence of life, the fragility of seemingly permanent ecosystems, and the scope of deep time, all of which have something to tell us about our current crisis.’
5. The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence
‘For the last fifty years, the trees of the boreal forest have been moving north. Ben Rawlence’s The Treeline takes us along this critical frontier of our warming planet from Norway to Siberia, Alaska to Greenland, to meet the scientists, residents and trees confronting huge geological changes. Only the hardest species survive at these latitudes including the ice-loving Dahurian larch of Siberia, the antiseptic Spruce that purifies our atmosphere, the Downy birch conquering Scandinavia, the healing Balsam poplar that Native Americans use as a cure-all and the noble Scots Pine that lives longer when surrounded by its family.
It is a journey of wonder and awe at the incredible creativity and resilience of these species and the mysterious workings of the forest upon which we rely for the air we breathe. Blending reportage with the latest science, The Treeline is a story of what might soon be the last forest left and what that means for the future of all life on earth.’
6. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser
‘A sweeping and captivatingly told history of clothing and the stuff it’s made of–an unparalleled deep dive into how we’ve made what we wear, and how our garments have transformed our societies, our planet, and our lives.
In this ambitious, panoramic social history, Sofi Thanhauser brilliantly tells five stories–Linen, Cotton, Silk, Synthetics, Wool–about the clothes we wear and where they come from, illuminating our world in unexpected ways. She takes us from the opulent court of Louis Quatorze to the labor camps in modern-day Chinese-occupied Xinjiang. We see how textiles were once dyed from lichen, shells, bark, saffron, and beetles, displaying distinctive regional weaves and knits, and how the modern Western garment industry has refashioned our attire into the homogenous and disposable uniforms popularized by fast fashion brands. Thanhauser makes clear how the clothing industry has become one of the planet’s worst polluters, relying on chronically underpaid and exploited laborers. But she also shows us how micro-communities and companies of textile and clothing makers in every corner of the world are rediscovering ancestral and ethical methods for making what we wear.
Drawn from years of intensive research and reporting from around the world, and brimming with fascinating anecdotal material, Worn reveals to us that our clothing comes not just from the countries listed on the tags or ready-made from our factories–it comes, as well, from deep in our histories.’
7. Free: Coming of Age at the End of History by Lea Ypi
‘For precocious 11-year-old Lea Ypi, Albania’s Soviet-style socialism held the promise of a preordained future, a guarantee of security among enthusiastic comrades. That is, until she found herself clinging to a stone statue of Joseph Stalin, newly beheaded by student protests.
Communism had failed to deliver the promised utopia. One’s “biography”—class status and other associations long in the past—put strict boundaries around one’s individual future. When Lea’s parents spoke of relatives going to “university” or “graduating,” they were speaking of grave secrets Lea struggled to unveil. And when the early ’90s saw Albania and other Balkan countries exuberantly begin a transition to the “free market,” Western ideals of freedom delivered chaos: a dystopia of pyramid schemes, organized crime, and sex trafficking.
With her elegant, intellectual, French-speaking grandmother; her radical-chic father; and her staunchly anti-socialist, Thatcherite mother to guide her through these disorienting times, Lea had a political education of the most colorful sort—here recounted with outstanding literary talent. Now one of the world’s most dynamic young political thinkers and a prominent leftist voice in the United Kingdom, Lea offers a fresh and invigorating perspective on the relation between the personal and the political, between values and identity, posing urgent questions about the cost of freedom.’
8. Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women by Annabel Abbs
‘Annabel Abbs’s Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women is a beautifully written meditation on connecting with the outdoors through the simple act of walking. In captivating and elegant prose, Abbs follows in the footsteps of women who boldly reclaimed wild landscapes for themselves, including Georgia O’Keeffe in the empty plains of Texas and New Mexico, Nan Shepherd in the mountains of Scotland, Gwen John following the French River Garonne, Daphne du Maurier along the River Rhône, and Simone de Beauvoir—who walked as much as twenty-five miles a day in a dress and espadrilles—through the mountains and forests of France.
Part historical inquiry and part memoir, the stories of these writers and artists are laced together by moments in Abb’s own life, beginning with her poet father who raised her in the Welsh countryside as an “experiment,” according to the principles of Rousseau. Abbs explores a forgotten legacy of moving on foot and discovers how it has helped women throughout history to find their voices, to reimagine their lives, and to break free from convention.
As Abbs traces the paths of exceptional women, she realizes that she, too, is walking away from her past and into a radically different future. Windswept crosses continents and centuries in a provocative and poignant account of the power of walking in nature.’